Tuesday, October 17, 2017

‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ Nearly Two Centuries Later

santa walking down the beach

“naples‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house  

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;  

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,  

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;  

Perhaps the most recognized and memorized American poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in the “Sentinel” in Troy, New York on December 23, back in 1823.  The poem was sent to the newspaper, by a friend of the author, and printed with the poet unnamed.

Best known and identified by the poem’s first line, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the verse was authored by an American, Clement Clarke Moore…a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Chelsea Square section of New York City.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;  

And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,  

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,

Written in anapestic tetrameter…an anapest is a type of metrical unit utilized in forms of Western poetry.  Poetic metrical “feet” are categorized by patterns of syllables and the length of the vowels used.  An attempt, on my part, to document and clarify this poetic meter would surely cause us all to enter into a long, winter’s nap.  Interestingly, anapestic tetrameter was an absolute favorite of Theodor Seuss Geusel…Dr. Seuss.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,  

I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,  

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.  

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow  

Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,

Clement Clarke Moore frequently published anonymously as he did in 1804 when he published “Observations upon Certain Passages in Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, which Appear to Have a Tendency to Subvert Religion, and Establish a False Philosophy,” which was a political assault on the current U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson.

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,  

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,  

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.  

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,  

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!  

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!  

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!  

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”  

Originally, Moore’s version utilized the Dutch names, “Dunder and Blixem.”  “An American Anthology” Editor, Edmund Charles Steadman, altered them using the German names, “Donner and Blitzen.”  Regardless of the version, Donner and Blitzen are words of Germanic origin meaning thunder and lightning, respectively.

Traditionally, the only reindeer were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Comet, Vixen, Cupid, Blitzen and Donner (Dunder and Blixem)…notice who’s missing?

a visit from st nicholas copy of letter
‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ handwritten Manuscript, gifted by author Clement C. Moore
(credit: New-York Historical Society)

In 1939, Rudolph was included in a book given to children visiting the Montgomery Ward department stores.  A verse, written by a Jewish Montgomery Ward advertising copywriter, Robert L. May, was included in the book to be distributed as a form of good will towards shoppers.

It is believed that Rudolph, the outcast reindeer, was a reflection of May’s difficult and isolated childhood during the Great Depression.  The verse grew in popularity and was ultimately recorded by Cowboy/Singer Gene Autry.  Interestingly, singing icons, Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, both rejected the song when offered the opportunity to record it.

In 1964, a stop-motion special was created…that timeless Christmas classic “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  The entire production was filmed in Japan with the sound track completed in Toronto, Canada.

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;  

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,  

With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.  

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof  

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,  

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.  

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,  

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; 

Capturing the inquisitiveness of most youth on the eve of Christmas, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” expressively choreographs Saint Nick’s operating methods and procedures.  Further, Moore’s plot validates Santa’s existence by chronicling the visit through the eyes of the family patriarch.

A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.  

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!  

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!  

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow  

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,  

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;  

He had a broad face and a little round belly,  

That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.  

It is worth noting that the authorship of the great poem has been questioned.  Some scholars believe that based on a careful analysis…using collateral evidence…the poem may have been written by Major Henry Livingston, Jr. rather than Moore.

The quarrel over authorship continues, to this day, with poets, historians and theorists sharing thoughts, linguistic analysis, handwriting samples and accusations.  Livingston was a distant relative of Moore’s wife, Catherine Elizabeth Taylor.

Henry Livingston’s family was outraged when they recognized that Moore was taking credit for the poem.  Livingston’s descendants insist that the original transcript of the poem was passed along through the family over the generations.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;  

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,  

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;  

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,  

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,  

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose; 

While authorship may never be confirmed, four “original copies” remain in existence.  Three copies reside in museums and the fourth copy is owned by a private collector who paid $280,000 for the document at auction in 2006.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,  

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,  

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

Despite the controversy, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” remains loved by all and continues to thrill small children everywhere…nearly 200 years after publication.


As I put down my pen, and finish this column,

I’ll wish you a Christmas that’s peaceful and solemn,

From the Herald staff…from all of us here,

A Merry Christmas to you and a blessed New Year!

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“A Visit From St. Nicholas, by Clement C Moore” by Clement Clarke Moorecredit: New-York Historical Society – ‘The Invention of Santa Claus’ Exhibit. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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